Anthony J. Konstant

Anthony J. Konstant (August 23, 2011)

Anthony K. Konstant, a civil rights advocate and restaurateur who led the way in desegregating restaurants on U.S. 40 in northeast Maryland and later owned the landmark Williamsburg Inn in White Marsh for many years, died Friday of heart failure at Oak Crest Village in Parkville.

The longtime White Marsh resident was 87.

The son of Greek immigrant restaurateurs, Mr. Konstant was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., and moved in the 1930s with his parents to Hollins Street in Southwest Baltimore, and then to Bel Air.

He was a 1941 graduate of Bel Air High School and enlisted in the Navy during World War II, where he was a gunner's mate and participated in the invasion of the Philippines and Okinawa and in the occupation of Japan.

After the war, Mr. Konstant returned to Bel Air and later attended Pennsylvania State University on the GI Bill of Rights, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1953 in restaurant management.

In 1956, he opened the Redwood Inn in Aberdeen with his father and a business partner, Steve Karas.

Before Interstate 95, when U.S. 40 was the main north-south route through the state, restaurant owners had for years routinely refused to serve meals to black travelers.

An international furor resulted in the spring of 1961, when William Fitzjohn, charge d'affaires for Sierra Leone in Washington, and his driver were refused service at a Howard Johnson restaurant in Hagerstown.

On June 26, 1961, another incident occurred when Adam Malick Soo, Chad's ambassador to the United States, who was traveling to Washington to present his credentials to President John F. Kennedy, stopped at a restaurant on U.S. 40 in Edgewood and was turned away.

Nine incidents had occurred that year along U.S. 40, which aroused the ire of President Kennedy and a suggestion from Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes that diplomats traveling U.S. 40 should select restaurants with an open-door policy.

Mr. Konstant and eight other restaurant owners came together to try to resolve the issue.

Mr. Konstant embarked upon visits to 35 restaurants along the highway in northeast Maryland to try and convince owners that dropping their objections to serving black customers was in their best interest.

"It is not an easy thing to go up to a Negro and tell him you won't serve him. It is morally and Christianly wrong," Mr. Konstant told The Evening Sun at the time.

Deliberations with fellow restaurant owners eventually hit a snag, leaving Mr. Konstant frustrated and angry that the decision wasn't unanimous.

"But at most places, the operators said integration was the only decent, moral thing to do, and that they were willing if everybody else was," he said.

"If I had to do it all over again I would have quietly desegregated, and that would have been that. It's the only sensible thing to do," Mr. Konstant told the newspaper.

In early November, the Congress of Racial Equality threatened demonstrations and sit-ins at unwelcoming establishments.

The restaurant owners eventually backed down and agreed to abandon their segregationist policies.

"I'm not bitter about CORE's role in this. Let's face it, we never would have done it if they had not applied pressure. They were fighting for a principle," said Mr. Konstant.